Back in October I recalled how the Google had announced in June 2014 that it was going to develop and ship a plugin for Chrome, E2EMail, which would give Gmail users the chance to use end to end encryption. This effort was announced in the aftermath of the Snowden disclosures when surveillance was a major public issue and many Google engineers were still smarting from the discovery that a NSA project called ‘Muscular‘ was slurping Google data as it traveled between their systems – and joking about it.
Google announced a number of security changes in response to the revelations almost all focused on the internal processes at the company, E2EMail however was something that users themselves would be able to choose to use. With an estimated billion users Gmail is the biggest provider of free email and well integrated encryption functionality could offer users real privacy and security gains. Of course there are plenty of alternatives, from running GPG/PGP locally on your email client to clients like Mailpile which have encryption built in, but Google has brand power as well as unquestioned engineering talent and with that comes a certain ability to influence user behaviour.
But two and a half years later there is still no plugin. Last week a post on the blog of google’s security team announced that E2EMail was ‘leaving the nest’ and would now be opened up to a community of developers around the project’s Github page. Observers are wondering if this is Google’s way of walking away from any responsibility for it. Wired published an article worth reading which also details some of the challenges involved in the development of such a tool. Google’s deployment of encryption on other users tools such as their messaging apps has been half-hearted – so far they have only implemented the Signal protocol on Allo and it is not enabled by default. This is in contrast to WhatsApp for example, which ships with encryption on by default; most users are loathe to reconfigure their software which is why default settings are so critical.
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